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Canada The political calculations behind Andrew Scheer’s climate-change plans

The Conservatives’ opinion research shows that climate change is now somewhere around third or fourth among priorities for voters as a whole, but more like eighth or ninth for voters open to voting Conservative.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

When Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives come out with their climate-change plan, as they promise to do this month or next, they will face an array of criticisms both predictable and carrying the ring of truth.

They will be accused of being offside with a majority of voters who prioritize taking strong action to save the planet. They will be charged with violating their ideological principles by rejecting carbon pricing, including a cap-and-trade model originally conceived by conservatives, in favour of less market-oriented policies that include more regulation. They will be told that those policies, regulatory and otherwise, are too modest for Canada to pull its weight in the global push to reduce emissions.

If any of this bothered Mr. Scheer, he would still have time to change course; to beef up his policies to something he could argue is at least as ambitious as what Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are doing, even without the tax levers the Tories have renounced.

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But to talk to members of Mr. Scheer’s campaign team this week was to get the sense that they are perfectly comfortable where they are on the issue. And nothing – not recent floods that have cost Canadians their homes and brought increased pressure on politicians to take climate change seriously, nor Friday’s Saskatchewan court ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Liberals’ carbon taxation – is likely to shake that confidence.

Speaking with those sources also made clear some of the assessments and assumptions that underpin Mr. Scheer’s approach to this issue, and that may be instructive when the policy specifics finally become known.

The first of those is a distinction between the electorate at large, and the share that is accessible to their party.

The Conservatives’ opinion research shows that climate change (or the environment in general) is now somewhere around third or fourth among priorities for voters as a whole. But for voters open to voting Conservative – not committed supporters, but swing voters the party is targeting – it ranks more like eighth or ninth.

In other words, the Conservatives don’t think that most people who rank climate change as one of their top concerns are going to consider supporting them. So despite those people likely constituting a plurality if not a majority of the electorate, Mr. Scheer won’t bother playing to them as he pursues the 35 per cent to 40 per cent of votes needed to win government.

That’s not to say that the Conservatives think all their accessible voters are completely indifferent. They believe that would-be supporters do want assurance that Mr. Scheer accepts that climate change is real and that there is some role for government in addressing it – just not much more than that.

As for how he plans to meet the minimal goal of not looking like a climate-change denier, Mr. Scheer seems headed toward something in the same general vein as the policy package that Doug Ford’s Ontario Progressive Conservatives introduced after scrapping the cap-and-trade system they inherited, which includes modest incentives for clean-technology development and some regulation of large industrial polluters.

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That points to another underlying assumption: that Conservative voters are not terribly concerned with ideological consistency.

By this line of thinking, most people outside Ottawa’s chattering classes won’t much care that imposing new rules, or offering some manner of subsidization, is theoretically less conservative than attaching a price to carbon. What matters more is whether they themselves, individuals and families, are being asked to carry a burden they don’t think they can afford.

Never mind that carbon-tax revenues collected under the Liberals’ system are returned to taxpayers through annual rebates. Nor that if the Conservatives imposed any serious penalties on industrial emitters, costs would likely be passed down to consumers. The Liberals’ strategy involves immediate cost increases on fuel and other products, the Tories’ wouldn’t, and that makes the politics.

That notion of burden, of how much Canadians feel they are being asked to do, ties in to one other calculation the Conservatives appear to have made about messaging around their policy roll-out.

As the Liberals (and New Democrats and Greens) talk about the importance of Canada playing a leadership role in tackling the global threat that climate change poses, the Tories could nod along and claim their own plans will achieve that. Instead, they plan to argue that Canada can’t be expected to go farther out on a limb than its trading partners.

Voters, the Conservatives seem to think, will be more taken with Canada accounting for only 1.6 per cent of global emissions than with that being disproportionately high for roughly 0.5-per-cent share of the global population. So there will be talk of not putting Canada at a competitive disadvantage economically. And it may be invoked to explain a retreat from the Paris Agreement’s emission-reduction targets, if Mr. Scheer goes that route, or a refusal to commit to those targets unless bigger countries start working harder to meet them.

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There is really no telling, until much closer to October’s election, whether all this will play out as the Tories expect. There have been too few previous campaigns in which climate change has been front and centre to make reliable predictions about its place in this one. All the opinion research in the world can’t measure exactly how Mr. Scheer’s handling of the issue will shape voters’ perceptions of a leader they’re still just getting to know. And any number of variables over the next five months, not least disasters like the recent floods, could alter the debate.

But one safe bet is that there will be no about-faces from Mr. Scheer before the release of his plan or after it. He’s made his calculations, and he’s going to stick with them. ​

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